Andy Warhol’s famous Screen Test films would have his subjects look at the camera for three minutes, preferably without blinking one’s eyes and moving (an act that’s more difficult than it sounds). Even if the person in front of the camera – a musician, a model, or whoever was a part of ‘the factory’ – couldn’t quite stick to the brief, as if he had been asked to feign the effect of a still photograph on film, the result was strangely hypnotic, and more revealing than either. Early on in Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground, a sad-eyed Lou Reed appears in one such clip, the right profile of his face buried in shadows, while the other half of the screen plays fragments from his childhood home movies of growing up under his conservative Jewish parents, and other films, as we hear a voiceover by Merrill Reed-Weiner, Reed’s sister who is interviewed for the film, on the sound track.
That’s Haynes’ Velvet Underground documentary in a nutshell, which employs archival footage, film clips, talking head interviews, still photographs, and voiceover, to chronicle the band’s journey, but is defined by how it uses the underground film imagery associated with that moment in American life and culture from which Reed and his bandmates emerged to form one of the most influential rock groups in history. Sometimes the screen is black, save for a still image on one side, like a photograph placed in a chart paper.
In others it splits into multiple panels of videos and stills. Sometimes the visuals border on abstraction – a hooded spectral figure with a flower, a dismembered mannequin in an industrial space – almost always in sync with what is being discussed, like the dancing beams of light that accompany the voiceover of John Cale, one of the band’s founding members, when he talks about improvisation as a vital force behind their music. The screen becomes a playground for Haynes, who uses avant-garde language by carefully selecting footage from films by icons like Jonas Mekas – known as one of the pioneers of the form and who appears in the film. At one point, we get a glimpse of Warhol’s silent shorts of men kissing men and a black man kissing a white woman, shot at 16 frames per second, one-third of the speed in real time, resulting in an “aesthetic difference” in the spectator, as a critic describes.
Unlike those films – which would often play at the Velvets’ performances as part of Warhol’s collective – which are non-narrative, Haynes gives them a context by placing them in the flow of sequences, from the band’s formative influences in the form of figures like classical musicians like La Monte Young to the point where Warhol has the idea to introduce an “icy blonde model” into the mix with the entry of Nico, to the bad reviews it got initially (“It will replace nothing except suicide,” wrote one critic).
We arrive at the band’s formation only after about fifty minutes of a prelude that initiates us into the subcultural zeitgeist that gave birth to it, that includes Reed choosing to perform in gay bars… Even earlier, Velvet members, particularly Cale, were getting influenced by reactionary musical ideas like the use of sustained notes in classical piano and drone music.
It’s easy to see why Haynes would be drawn to make a documentary on The Velvet Underground. He has always been interested in pop music figures (Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There). Less obvious is his knack for revisiting periods in American culture that have a place for transgressive themes and queer filmmaking (Far From Heaven, Carol). The Velvet Underground emerged out of, and coincided with, a movement that celebrated sexual experimentation: we arrive at the band’s formation only after about fifty minutes of a prelude that initiates us into the subcultural zeitgeist that gave birth to it, that includes Reed choosing to perform in gay bars and writing poetry with explicit homosexual content.
Even earlier, Velvet members, particularly Cale, were getting influenced by reactionary musical ideas like the use of sustained notes in classical piano and drone music. The film begins with the distorted sounds of guitar playing on a black screen, followed by footage of Cale’s appearance in the CBS game show I’ve got a Secret, where his 18 hour 40 minutes rendition of an Erik Satie piece is laughed off. At one point, Cale – one of the band members who are still around and therefore is interviewed for the film – recalls a violent live performance as a teen where he hacked a piano with an axe that sent his piano teacher, who was seated in the front row, out of the auditorium in tears. Defiantly anti-hippie, just like the Velvets hated most of the things, they weren’t instantly likeable either and one of the interviewees describe them like this: “They had this off-putting aura; you know, yikes, they were scary”.
Haynes makes a crucial choice by leaving out concert footage, usually the most used element in a rock music documentary, by steering clear of it completely, almost as if he does so in tandem with the band’s aesthetic, which rejected conventions. In other words, Haynes is successful in piecing together an audio-visual experience that brings us close to the band’s sound. It’s in the way he juxtaposes the head rush of images that are speeded up as the strains of “Heroin” kicks in, or the way he shoots his Talking Heads, which are lit, production designed and costumed in a way that blends into the piece. Reed’s opening voiceover, which describes the feeling of being in a movie theatre, calls to mind “…The long arm of light crossing the darkness and spinning… The shots themselves are full of dots and rays… It is always so when one goes to the movies. It is, as they say, a drug.”